Saunders says ‘goodbye,’...
Published: Thursday, September 6, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 6, 2012 00:09
These words were spoken by former president of the University of Southern Mississippi Martha Saunders. Faculty, staff and students said goodbye to the ninth president of the university this summer. Saunders vacated her office on June 30 after announcing her resignation in late April, but she did not leave before giving The Student Printz an exclusive interview.
In 1969, Saunders graduated from USM with a Bachelor of Arts degree in French. She returned to her alma mater in 2007 after she transferred from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where she served as the first-ever female chancellor. Saunders said she left Hattiesburg to explore the world, start a family and flourish in her professional opportunities.
“To get the call to take all that I had learned and bring it home was something that couldn’t be planned in a million years,” Saunders said. “It really was a fairy-tale...and a thrill.”
Saunders returned during a demanding period, both emotionally and economically. Just two years after Hurricane Katrina wrecked the Gulf Coast and impacted families across the state, Saunders stepped in to make the best of a bad situation. As Murphy’s Law goes, however, anything that can go wrong will. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, the university was up against the worst recession since the Great Depression and budget cuts from the state.
“The absolute toughest decision I made as president was having to agree to close down programs,” Saunders said. “They weren’t bad programs; they were good programs, but we couldn’t afford them. It was hard to swallow.”
Despite the drawbacks, the university was able to offset some of the cuts by extensively examining the budget for a year, so Southern Miss weathered the storm, according to Saunders. Today, the university is enjoying five straight years of record enrollment numbers and all-time high fund-raising and is ranked as one of the Top 20 Most Popular Universities, according to the U.S. News and World Report.
On the morning of April 27, Saunders shocked the Golden Eagle community with her resignation. When asked to elaborate on her decision, Saunders said, “I wish I could.”
“I came to the very clear realization that I had done all that I could do for Southern Miss as its president,” she said. “We’ve done great things, but it’s my time to pass the baton on to the next person.”
That person to receive the baton, for now at least, is interim president Aubrey K. Lucas. Lucas previously served as president from 1975- 1997 and in 2001, and Saunders says the university is left in good hands.
“He [Lucas] knows us well; as always, he will be great,” Saunders said.
Though she is leaving the Office of the President, Saunders will remain a part of the university by serving as an undergraduate and graduate professor at the Gulf Coast campus. She will begin teaching during the spring semester.
Saunders also spoke about the legacy she will leave behind. When she became president, she told campus that she was going to build trust, a team and a campus.
“When I got here, the campus had been embattled for some time, but from that, we have been able to build a lot of trust,” she said. “We have been able to disagree and not go to war. We have taken back our campus.”
As she closed the interview, Saunders said her good-byes to campus, faculty, staff, students and the entire Golden Eagle community.
“I want to thank them for being so wonderful,” Saunders said. “My advice to Southern Miss is to build for the next 100 years. Keep your eye on the prize because the best is yet to be.”